In wake of killing, are rifts among U.S. Jews widening

NEW YORK — The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Jew bent on "saving" Israel from the peace process prompted anguished calls for unity and healing among a shocked and grief-stricken Jewish people.

Leaders across the political and religious spectrum warned that internecine hatred brought down the second Jewish Commonwealth, and that intracommunal strife could again wreak disaster.

But barely a week after Yitzhak Rabin was laid to rest, it appeared that the rifts over the peace process between right and left and Orthodox and non-Orthodox in the United States are not being narrowed by shared sorrow but are gaping wider than ever.

"I'm afraid what's going to occur is a hardening of both sides," said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, chairman of Shvil Hazahav, an Orthodox group that supports the peace process.

"The government and pro-peace process [camp] may unfortunately try to seize on this and paint the whole Orthodox community as extremist," he said. "I fear segments of the Orthodox community in reaction will begin to harden their positions, thereby driving further wedges [in] the community at a time when unity is sorely needed."

Two Jewish umbrella organizations are in the process of planning national solidarity events in support of the peace process. At the same time, however, their representatives said there must be opportunities to express responsible opposition to the process.

Meanwhile, Orthodox leaders are growing alarmed that the daily reports from Israel about confessed killer Yigal Amir are unleashing a backlash against the Orthodox community.

The reports indicated that Amir was part of an underground of religious zealots led by rabbis who appeared to sanction violent acts against Israeli leaders for pursuing a peace process whose territorial concessions defied the will of God.

There were also media reports linking American Orthodox fund-raising for settlers in the territories with armaments for a political-religious underground, and with local support for the legal defense fund of Amir.

Inflaming the atmosphere here were charges by some that Amir's ideology and action were only a natural outgrowth of his Orthodoxy.

"The intense religiously defined nationalism that fueled the fury of Yigal Amir, the confessed assassin, is normative in today's Orthodox community," wrote Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, in an opinion piece.

For most Orthodox Jews, he wrote, "the Jewish claim to the land of Israel is seen as biblical and absolute, and not subject to the normal give and take of the secular political process."

But Orthodox leaders were concerned that the rhetoric in the wake of the assassination is amounting to "Orthodox-bashing."

"The Orthodox community is being tarred and feathered," said Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America, which represents ultra-religious Jews.

"If the community continues to be smeared with one brush for the activity of one person, I'm afraid of a situation where we will no longer talk rationally," Sherer added.

"Yigal Amir is no more representative of Orthodox Jews than David Duke is of the Republican Party," he said.

"Leaders of Orthodox Jewry were outraged by the murder and condemned it in the strongest terms. We also emphatically condemned the sentiments of a few individuals — of the minuscule fringe — who exulted in the assassination."

Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, which represents 1,000 congregations nationwide, voiced similar sentiments.

"We are part of the mainstream with a lot to contribute and to be ostracized and delegitimized is very distasteful," Ganchrow said.

In fact, Ganchrow stressed that his organization does not oppose the peace process but has issued calls in a political framework "to slow things down, to bring people together."

Such a call was made, he said, in a meeting last July with Rabin and now Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and in a carefully worded letter to Rabin published as a full-page Jewish newspaper ad last August.

"We feel very strongly about the sanctity of the land" and the peace process has given rise to "serious concerns we have about security," said Ganchrow.

"People are scared for their lives [in Israel] and the future of their children and of the Jewish people."

Ganchrow did not apologize for the group's actions, but added, "Could we have done more" to curb extremism? "Everyone could have done more."

Leaders of non-Orthodox groups also cautioned against scapegoating of any sort in the emotional wake of the Rabin killing. At the same time, some contended it is logical to turn the spotlight on the political-religious community from which Rabin's alleged killer came, and on the role and responsibility of its leaders.

"It is very important to avoid stereotyping and generalizations, like blaming the whole political right, or Orthodox Jews or American Jews who make aliyah," said Kenneth Jacobson, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

"When there is extremism, everybody has the obligation to speak out and to make sure it doesn't spread and infect a broader part of the population," he said.

Community-wide condemnation of extremism is needed, agreed Gary Rubin, executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

"But the hard truth is that the responsibility lies especially with those in whose name the extremists claim to speak" and whose authority they draw on to commit acts of violence against Israeli leadership, said Rubin.

"This is not a matter of scapegoating," said Rubin. "This is a matter of marshaling the only forces in the community that can be effective in combating the extremism."

What is needed from "the only leaders who can speak credibly to the extreme right," said Rubin, is a "clear statement that halachah unambiguously rejects acts of extremism and violence."

Since the assassination, countless condemnations of the killing and the violent rhetoric were issued by U.S. and Israeli religious and Jewish groups.

The New York Board of Rabbis on Monday made a strong statement at a news conference at the Israeli Consulate.

"We pledge we will not tolerate the vituperative, vilifying and inciteful language uttered by some in Israel and America, including several rabbis, who advocate murdering Israeli leaders or justify assassination," said the board, which represents 800 rabbis of all Jewish movements.

"Rabbis and lay persons who articulate such heinous views are beyond the pale of civilized society. We will shun, scorn and quarantine them for they are moral lepers," the rabbis said.

"We will redouble our efforts to heal the wounds of our people, using our pulpits and pens to bring greater unity rather than partisanship and factionalism, reason rather than fanaticism, love instead of hate."

Ganchrow said: "I would like to think we teach tolerance as a way of life, but I think we have not. We and everyone else have failed. We all have to accept our blame."

Orthodox Union leadership met this week in an emergency session to discuss strategies for responding to heightened tensions within the Jewish community.

The Orthodox Union will be working to develop programs to teach tolerance to the 40,000 students in its National Synagogue Conference, Ganchrow said.

The Orthodox Union is also working on ways to "deflate" what Ganchrow called the radical right-wing Jewish media. "This is a great problem for the whole community," he said.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was also scheduled to meet this week to plan a "national unity event" and forge an overall strategy in the wake of the Rabin killing that would deflect the divisiveness that looms over the community.

The umbrella group plans to "reaffirm our traditional support for Israeli government policy" at the same time that the conference "continues to support the right of people to express their differences when their differences are expressed appropriately," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the conference.

For Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, "The challenge is to create a culture of debate in the community that will sustain us in the long run."